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Carlos Ward: A Tough and Lyrical Journey


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I was just trying to play what I felt, and I remember at one of the jam sessions I hit a note that must've sounded sour. But to me, it covered everything. I was holding that note for dear life.
Alto saxophonist and flutist Carlos Ward has worked steadily with some of improvised music's most diverse and captivating figures—musicians like John Coltrane, Don Cherry and Abdullah Ibrahim—but despite being a well-regarded presence in their ensembles, Ward has not received quite the recognition that even a host of other sidemen have. Ward's alto tone is gritty and acerbic, but with ebullient, speech-like cadences—comparisons to Jackie McLean, Marion Brown, John Tchicai and Prince Lasha are not unwarranted. He was born in La Boca, Panama in May 1940, and raised in Panama City. "Back in Panama, when I was staying with my aunt, I would be singing—I started off singing at about nine years old, washing dishes on the box and I would be singing the Hit Parade from the States (I lived in the Canal Zone)." His first instrument was the ukulele, and he took up the clarinet in 1952.

Along with the pop hits of the day, Ward's aunt's radio provided him with the music of Bob Crosby, the Dixieland clarinetist who was an early inspiration to pick up the wooden horn. "I always loved the sound of the clarinet and what the clarinet was doing in that whole mixture, improvising and harmonically as well." Ward's uncle, a pianist, also was encouraging and had radio spots on the weekends in La Boca, and his aunt was a classical pianist: "I'd spend hours looking through her library—she had etudes and stuff like that... and my chore of dusting the furniture included dusting the piano... growing up, I always wanted something to do with the arts, either to be a painter or a musician." Ward also spent time listening to the Panamanian calypso, a long-lasting influence on his cadences and compositions. Therefore, coupling local and familial musical traditions with the music heard on American radio broadcasts, a wide variety of musics from the Western Hemisphere made its way into Ward's young mind.

After relocating to Seattle to live with his mother and siblings in 1952-3, and in the midst of his studies on the clarinet, Ward's friend Marion Evans introduced him to the alto saxophone, by virtue of abandoning the instrument at his house in high school. Ironically, his teacher Johnny Jessen was known primarily for later teaching a young Kenny G, and "he's the one who really straightened me out." Ward's early musical associates included drummer Doug Robinson and the rock group The Playboys, in which he played clarinet, alto, baritone and bongos. The rock and roll gigs enabled Ward to make spending money as a kid, which went to the purchase of jazz records, a record changer and concerts by Jazz at the Philharmonic, among others.

In addition to Monk and Coltrane, Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic, 1959) was one of the most pivotal recordings he heard, "oh, that's the shape of jazz to come? Well, I want to find out what it's gonna be [chuckles]." It was an introduction to not only to Coleman, but to Don Cherry, who was a major factor in his later musical development. Like Coleman, Ayler and others, Ward was often disparaged for his approach to the standards on the bandstand—"I was just trying to play what I felt, and I remember at one of the jam sessions, I hit a note that must've sounded sour. But to me, it covered everything. I was holding that note for dear life."

During a stint in the Army in the early 1960s, Ward relocated to Frankfurt and saw groups like that of trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff at the Domicile, who let him sit in. In Heidelberg, Ward met pianist- vibraphonist Karl Berger, who he began working with early on, and musicians from Denmark and elsewhere would come to sit in with the Berger-led rhythm section, providing a fruitful, international scope to Ward's jazz studies. Visiting musicians, especially Eric Dolphy—whom he caught in Frankfurt and Stuttgart shortly before his death—also encouraged Ward to go ahead, to play what he felt. In Copenhagen in 1965 at the Cafe Montmartre, Ward finally met Don Cherry, who was working in a quartet with South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand), bassist Johnny Gertze and drummer Makaya Ntshoko. This led to a visit to the schoolhouse Cherry shared near Stockholm with his wife, Mocqui, and sowed the seeds for their playing throughout the '70s and '80s. A few weeks after this, Ward returned to the United States.

When Coltrane came through Seattle in 1965 with Pharoah Sanders and Donald Raphael Garrett, Ward had another prophetic meeting. "I asked him if I could sit in and he accepted. He let me come on stage, and immediately he could decipher what I was trying to do, by making motions with his hand how my ideas were going. He was going up and down, to the sides, and this is how we started. I would come and sit in with him a couple of nights, and one time Joe Brazil was sitting in... I would go to the hotel and meet with Pharoah and Raphael, and they were talking about vegetarianism. Trane told me I should go to New York, and so in about fall of 1965, I took the Trailways bus there."

Soon he met other musicians of the new music, including Rashied Ali, Henry Grimes, Marzette Watts, Sunny Murray, Roger Blank and Arthur Jones. Ward's most notable gig at the time was with Coltrane's expanded unit, with Ali, Pharoah, Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner: "I remember this moment with Trane after the Village Gate, and he said 'what do you think this music needs?' I was thinking about flutes at the time, and so I mentioned that. Later, I saw he was holding a flute on the cover of his record, Expression [Impulse!, 1967]."

Ward frequently hung out with Sunny Murray at his loft, later joining one variant of Murray's Swing Unit. The group played Toronto in 1967, with Grachan Moncur III, Alan Shorter and Alan Silva: "somebody got us a room with mattresses on the floor and that's how we did that week. The cats would argue all day, but at night the music was sublime! You couldn't touch this stuff!" At the Both/And Club in San Francisco, the Swing Unit with Shorter, Ward, Mark Whitecage and Pharoah Sanders made an infamous 'appearance' later in the year: "Sunny says 'yeah, I got us a gig in San Francisco and we're gonna travel by car and take this new music out there.' The club owner apparently saw Sunny in New York and told him to call him if he was ever in town. Sunny took it to mean 'oh, I can go to San Francisco and he'll give me a gig,' which means he didn't have a gig."

"We're on the road in this car, all five of us, and we stopped at one of these pancake houses one morning. We had a little storage closet on top of the car, and I had the key. Me and Alan were washing up and nobody else wanted to—they wanted to eat. Sunny says 'we already ate,' I was just getting to the table and wanted to eat. Sunny says 'gimme the key, we're gonna leave you. We have to get to San Francisco 'cause they're waiting for us!' I ate something and I wasn't gonna give up that key. Next thing you know, we move from inside to outside arguing, and I was amazed that nobody was trying to look out for me... this is the time of universal brotherhood, and there's some strange shit going on! Everybody in the pancake house was getting angry, and so they called the sheriff to get us into the car and move on! Here I am in the car having to talk Sunny out of stranding me, and so I said 'damn, how come nobody's trying to tell him how wrong he is? Pharoah says, 'well, you're not doing any good!' Finally I talked him out of it, though."

Despite acceptance from important figures in the New Music, people like Coltrane and Sunny Murray, Ward's approach to the saxophone did encounter some antipathy. Arranger Coleridge Taylor Perkinson, who Ward met in Germany, encouraged the altoist to seek out Max Roach, known as a champion of young and diverse talents. "I decided to go to the Five Spot and introduce myself to Max and sit in. Max shakes my hand and almost breaks it... Max says 'okay, it's a 64-bar tune' and I got up and started playing. I'm up there, and he tells the musicians to stop playing. Everybody stops playing, he stops, and I'm out there by myself and I'm still playing. After a while I stop and everybody in the audience is quiet. He says 'I've played with Bird, Diz, and I ain't never heard no shit like that!' Mel Lewis happened to be in the audience, and in later years he told me 'yeah, I was there and you were cool, but you weren't playing what Max wanted to hear.'"

After a late '60s stint on the West Coast, following the Sunny Murray fiasco, Ward returned East and worked with figures like Marcus Belgrave, Wendell Harrison, Eddie Jefferson and Roy Brooks, as well as Rashied Ali's band (they recorded New Directions with pianist Fred Simmons and bassist Stafford James for Survival in 1972). In addition to weekend gigs with West Indian bands, he was with the funk group BT Express at the time: "this guy was looking for an arranger for these songs he had written the words for but hadn't composed any music to, and he wanted to pitch it to Holiday Inn and a rum company. This band he had, they didn't know how to write, so I came in and wrote music for these two songs. After we did that, they asked me to join them—it was first the King Davis House Rockers, and they went from that name to the Madison Street Express, and then to BT Express."

In 1973, he began playing with Cherry again, including a memorable Jazz Composers' Orchestra recording, Relativity Suite ("Desireless" was written for him). He also worked more regularly with Ibrahim during this time, a diverse recorded relationship that lasted until 1986, when Ward joined Cherry's group Nu with Mark Helias, Ed Blackwell and Nana Vasconcelos. "Don used to come by my house and hear what I was working on. He'd say 'yeah, let's do this—we can do this.' It was happening, and we had a big tour in Europe where that BBC record was made [Don Cherry, BBC, 1986, including Ward's composition "Lito."]. I was really sort of angry when that Multi-Kulti band came around, because they had recorded and we never got to, even though we'd been together for a long time."

Fundamentally, the association with Cherry was one of Ward's biggest assets: "Don would try to help me—he'd try to get other people who were working with him interested in doing something with me. I remember one time when he took me to Atlantic Records to meet Nesuhi Ertegun, and Don gave him some of my music to see if he liked it." The late 1980s were an artistically fruitful time for Ward, as in addition to working with luminaries like Cherry and replacing the departed Jimmy Lyons in Cecil Taylor's Unit, he finally recorded as a leader—1988's excellent Lito, with Woody Shaw (Leo Records).

In working with some of improvisation's greatest synthesizers, Ward has been afforded unique playing situations, even if working conditions and recordings have been somewhat erratic. Despite taking the last few years off due to an injured playing hand, Ward has been readying himself for a return to the scene. Hopefully the near future will hold opportunities to bestow his musical knowledge on another generation of musicians, gleaned from a tough but lyrical lifetime.

Recommended Listening:

Carlos Ward—Set for Two Don's (Puell, 1998)

Carlos Ward—Lito (Leo, 1988)

Cecil Taylor—Live in Bologna (Leo, 1987)

Don Cherry—Don Cherry (BBC, 1986/2002)

Abdullah Ibrahim and Carlos Ward—Live at Sweet Basil (Ekapa, 1983)

BT Express—Do It (Til You're Satisfied) (Unidisc, 1975)

Dollar Brand—African Space Program (Enja, 1973)

Don Cherry/Carlos Ward/Dollar Brand—Third World Underground (Trio/Nadja, 1972)

Rashied Ali—New Directions in Modern Music (Survival, 1972)

Karl Berger—Tune In (Milestone, 1969)

Karl Berger—From Now On (ESP, 1966)

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